Carl Sagan was the first figure of authority in my life that spoke to something inside me. Watching Sagan’s miniseries Cosmos on PBS all those years ago really informed me and my approach to life. You see, although Cosmos was a journey through what humanity knew and the thousands of years journey humanity went on to get there, it wasn’t simply dry or academic. Oh, there was plenty of science, and the history of science, but Sagan went further and deeper than that.
Sagan spoke of transformative experiences he had along his personal journey in science. He spoke of the wonder of seeing this universe, its awesome majesty, its elegance, and its scope, from the almost absurdly tininess of sub-atomic particles to the ego-shattering vastness of the Cosmos itself. He also spoke of the context of being a member of a people who were able to not only determine that the earth is round, but it’s rough size – and this way back in BC times, thousands of years before anything resembling modern technology. He spoke of the breath-taking endeavor that was the Library of Alexander. He spoke of the struggles of men of reason against oppressors that did not like the facts as they were presented to them – such as a solar system where the Earth was not the center. And always he came back to the grandness, beauty, and sheer joy of the naked truth of the universe itself.
This wasn’t merely a recitation of facts, though one could learn a lot from Cosmos, even today. What Cosmos represented was Sagan’s journey and experiences of this wondrous world we inhabit. Far from being passive or boring, it was engaging, emotional, profound – it was not just spiritual, it was essentially spiritual. Although Sagan may not have described it so, his Spirituality leaped from the screen to our hearts, as we got to expereince his journey and what it meant to him.
This is why I think many scientists do not seek or need traditional religion – they already have a Spirituality in place. Their muse is the world itself, their values those that embrace truth, honesty, and pragmatism – and both personal and societal evolution. Their communities are their fellows seekers, their spiritual leaders not the most eminent in their field, but the scientists that go beyond truth to meaning, who connect science to humanity and humanity to science, men like Brian Greene, Richard Dawkins, Michio Kaku, and the amazing Neil deGrasse Tyson.
So one might ask, is the Spiritualism of Science the one true religion, the best Spirituality?
Well, to put it bluntly, no. There can be no best spirituality. That’s not to say there can’t be total wrong spirituality or religions – there totally can be. Absolutely, utterly, earth-shatteringly wrong belief systems. The one that said the sun revolved around the earth was utterly wrong, for example.
But, if approached correctly, deferring to Reason in all aspects where it needs to be deferred to, such as matters of fact, then there is more than enough room for an unlimited number of spiritualities!
For me, while I am deeply touched by Sagan’s spirituality, and am honored whenever I get to be in its presence – or in the presence of those of Kaku, Dawkins, Tyson – my own personal spiritual needs require more of a community aspect. I want to gather with “my people” whomever they may be, I want to “pray” with them, I want to share with my “congregation” our struggles to be better than we might otherwise be.
Perhaps if I was a scientist professionally, I would meet that need in my day to day work. Since I am not, I must find other ways.
Still, Sagan’s Spirituality is compelling, and when I hear scientists speak from the heart of their joy and reverence for the natural world and our yearning to understand it, I know that they have fulfilled their spiritual needs, just like Sagan did.
Part of this journey for me is finding the right concepts, the proper words to correctly zero in on what we are doing here. It’s all about achieving a certain amount of precision – because, I think, precision can be an integral component that leads to clarity, a clarity is (as always) the goal.
There are key concepts that if well-described and well-defined get us a long way down the road of finding our way. And there’s one cornerstone concept in particular that I have been having difficulty encapsulating in language.
Let’s go back for a moment. Let’s consider again the world of facts, the objective “it’s really real” world. That is the world that exists. We can reasonably debate about what the real, factual world contains, but the fact remains that there is a real factual world, and when we make factual statements, those statements are either correct and accurate representations of the factual truth, or they are inaccurate, incorrect, and basically wrong.
Then there’s our subjective feelings of the world. A pencil is a pencil is a pencil, but showing a #2 yellow pencil to an academic star and to someone who flunked out may yield very different visceral reactions to the same fact. Put another way, the world of feelings is unique to everyone. And feelings are not bound by fact, though they are often influenced by them, of course. There’s nothing about a sunny day that mandates being happy, and a rainy day doesn’t require anybody to be bummed. Some folks in fact dislike sunny days and enjoy the rainy ones – and that’s fine.
Somewhere between fleeting and ephemeral feelings and solid, dependable facts lies a hazy middle ground. Sometimes we have feelings that seem more profound, more significant, or more compelling. Sometimes we have an experience that seems more than just ordinary, that seems especially fulfilling, deep, or engaging.
It is this extra aspect to an experience that I am calling resonance. When you are deeply moved by a film, you’re experiencing resonance. When a sermon seems to speak to your heart or soul, that’s resonance. When you look at your beloved and feel an undeniable transcendent love, that’s resonance too.
Plenty of experiences and feelings can be extraordinary without having resonance, however. You can feel a rush as your sports team wins without feeling any special meaning about it. You can have a scrumptious dinner without that experience touching you all that deeply. And you can be genuinely happy about a good day you are having without it being particularly profound. All these feelings are normal, day-by-day happenings.
But when a piece of you begins to think “this means something” or “this is important”, when you feel deeply, when you are consumed by the experience, even if only for a moment, that is resonance.
A phrase came to me, that itself exhibited resonance to me, causing a feeling of something worth noting: “The intersection of fact and feeling is meaning.”
Feeling is emotion, and facts are, well, facts. But where feelings become more than just emotion is where our facts gain context and dimension – where their meaning to us unfolds. And though plain facts are dry and mundane, where they begin to take on purpose and heft is where they speak to our hopes and needs.
The intersection of fact and feeling is meaning. And resonance is the built-in “radar” we have for early detection of these vital spiritual truths.
I think the key to spirituality that fulfills us is keying into the idea and reality of resonance.
Now that I have lain down the foundation for resonance, let me take up the other lexicological challenge facing me: an apt name for what may well be the most critical, central, and vital part of the whole thing – the division between the secular and the spiritual.
- the secular – which is everything factual, objective, every truth about the actual real world, and
- the spiritual – which is everything subjective, all the values, contexts, and personal truths
The balance is maintained by treating them differently. Reason is the sole arbiter of what can be claimed true in secular matters. However, in spiritual matters, Reason no longer gets to reign supreme, and is demoted to performing only the clean-up work of finding and removing inconsistency. Other methods – intuition, faith, revelation, our innate sense – can be brought into play in spiritual matters without reproach.
This arrangement works splendidly at three critical tasks.
First, it prohibits any method other than Reason from being allowed to produce facts about the objective world. Under this approach, there would never be another moment of having some spiritual text say one thing while the scientific evidence says something completely different. No more would our religious leaders say one thing about the world, like the earth is only 10,000 years old, while the incontrovertible evidence demonstrates an age of billions of years. No more would any spirituality or faith have any right to make any pronouncements with regards to facts about the world. Under this approach, that right belongs to Reason alone.
Second, this arrangement permits truly spiritual beliefs – beliefs about value, meaning, purpose, morals, understanding and wisdom – to be free of the rigid strictures required by Reason. The only justification for a spiritual belief needed is “This is what I feel”. By these means, all spiritual statements of all kinds are forever protected from being challenged by philosophers and scientists. Each person can truly embrace what’s in their heart and spirit without fear of attack on their logic. (With the only exception being the pursuit of internal consistency.)
Finally, this approach (were people to follow it) utterly and completely ends the incessant tug-of-war between religion and Reason, church and science – at least as far as disagreements go – for if the disagreement be over a secular matter, then only Reason decides it, but if the disagreement be over a spiritual matter, then the matter is decided by one’s spiritual beliefs.
This arrangement, which (if followed) would end a war that has raged since the dawn of humanity, I will be calling the Covenant – a pact amongst us all to (hopefully) finally settle these matters in the way that benefits all and respects all truths, secular and spiritual, each in their own appropriate way.
This may seem at first unrelated to spiritualism and more properly a subject of philosophy – and it is. But the Covenant requires us to adhere to a strict separation of the secular and the spiritual, so it is useful to understand the central approach of Reason (the sole arbiter of factual truth) to initially evaluate claims.
The easiest way to illustrate this is with the oft-used “box example”. Two friends, let’s call them Murray and Thomas, walk into a cafe to get their morning coffee together. Murray is an imaginative and undoubting chap, while Thomas is more reserved and skeptical. They notice a plain box on the counter of the bistro as they sip their coffees, and wonder aloud at what might be in it. Murray observes that the box might contain an orange. Thomas notes that while Murray might be right, the number of other possibilities of what the box might reasonably contain is so vast as to make it unlikely that Murray’s first guess is accurate – although not impossible. Murray, doing what he does anytime he’s slightly challenged, doubles down, saying that he knows it must contain an orange.
Thomas is aware that according to the strictures of Reason, Murray is out of line to make such a claim. It’s not that Murray’s claim isn’t possible, it’s that his claim isn’t justified. And that’s the key point here.
In order to be justified, a secular, fact-based claim must not merely be possibly true, it must be necessarily true. There must be a preponderance of evidence supporting a factual claim, or the claim may not be made.
In order to (gently) disabuse his friend Murray of his unjustified claim, Thomas does not have to go as far as to show that an orange couldn’t be what’s in the box – after all, Thomas has no problem with the possibility of that being true, he has a problem with Murray saying that it is not just possibly true, but actually true. What Thomas needs to do, therefore, is to demonstrate that Murray hasn’t justified his claim.
In other words, Thomas isn’t saying that there’s no chance an orange is in the box – he’s simply saying that at this time with current evidence, Murray cannot say that he knows for a fact that an orange is in it.
Many people get this wrong. Many people think that in order to show one shouldn’t claim that a certain thing is true you need to prove that it isn’t true. However, that is wrong – in order to show that a claim cannot be made, all you have to do is show that it is unfounded – that it lacks proper justification to be made in the first place.
Ultimately, when anyone considers a factual claim, there are not two responses, but three. (Actually five, but that goes beyond the scope of this topic – I do list them at the bottom for anyone who wants to know.)
One can say the claim is justified, and true.
One can say the claim is factually wrong, and demonstrate the falsity of the claim.
Or one can say the claim may or may not be correct, but we do not at this time have enough information to say.
Many people forget the third is a proper possible outcome. People tend to think of a claim as being accepted as true or rejected as false – they don’t often see that the third response of “We can’t say” is sometimes the best response – but it is.
In the case of the box example above, Murray made a claim that there is in fact an orange in the box, despite any evidence to that effect. Murray’s claim can’t be said to be true just yet, but nor can it be said to be false yet either. The correct response is simply that Murray’s claim is not justified, and therefore cannot yet be made, whether it turns out to be true or not. After all, a stopped clock is right twice a day, but we would not call that a good way to tell time!
The Skeptic’s Principle respects this truth – sometimes the right course of action in response to a claim is neither to believe it true nor false, but to reject it as unjustified and to simply say “We can’t say.”
The box example above is silly, and unlikely, yet it illustrates clearly the Skeptic’s Principle, something that people get wrong every time they respond to being challenged to justify their claims with “Well, you can’t prove me wrong!”
Note: for any who wish to know the five potential ways to evaluate claims of factual truth, they are:
- internally not well formed: the claim must be rejected because either it is internally inconsistent and in some way contradicts itself, or the claim contains one or more items that are vague, imprecise, undefined, etc.
- demonstrably true: we have enough reasons to think this factually true
- demonstrably false: we have enough reasons to think this factually false
- unknown: though well formed, the claim cannot be reliably said to be be true or false because we don’t yet have enough information
- unknowable: still well-formed, but of such a nature that no evidence is possible, therefore can never said to be known true or known false
We have defined the Covenant recently, but what does that mean? How does following it affect us? How does it shape our choices and beliefs, in practice?
As we said, the Covenant is what divides all things into two worlds, the secular and the spiritual – the secular being the world of fact ruled by Reason alone, and the spiritual being the world of feeling, value, context, and meaning chosen by whatever so moves us to so choose.
To abide by the Covenant, we must take that seriously. When someone tell us that their belief is that the world is less than ten thousand years old, for example, we do not give them a pass. They have made a secular statement – a statement of fact about the age of the earth. The Covenant requires that all statements of fact be justified using the tools of Reason alone. Telling us that their belief (or their holy book) says so does not of course provide any reasons to believe in what is being said. Reason requires proof – that’s how the secular world operates. So we must reject their assertion as undemonstrated until they can do better. Secular statements require secular proof.
(It should be noted, for those who are not familiar, that shooting down a claim is not the same thing as demonstrating the opposite of the claim – see the post on the Skeptic’s Principle.)
So an assertion that the world is only ten thousand years old or less is a secular claim that has to be judged by Reason, what else?
Here’s another example, based on an experience of mine. I dreamed that I was with my father, who died many years ago. We were doing garden work in my dream, digging and planting. It was very pleasant to be able to be with him, very nice to be in his presence again. However, were I to claim that I was really conversing in my dream with the actual spirit of my dead father, the first thing we have to know to respect the Covenant would be “is this a secular claim of fact or a spiritual claim of value?”
The answer should be obvious. If I indeed did claim to have really spoken with my actual dead father in a dream, it is a claim of fact about the actual world. This is not a spiritual claim, as defined by the Covenant, but an assertion of factual truth. Therefore it must be evaluated as strictly as any factual claim – by Reason alone. And if the assertion can not be justified as necessarily true (not just possibly true, according to the Skeptic’s Principle which applies in all secular truth claims) than it is discarded as unfounded.
Let’s take the big elephant in the room: many people claim that a supremely powerful being called God exists. Without getting into exactly what the word “God” specifically means here – which would be required if we were to go forward – let’s move on as if we had well-defined that term.
Well, any statement of “X exists” must be a secular statement, again with respect to the Covenant. To claim that something exists is to make a fact based claim about the actual objective world. Saying that “God exists” is a statement that factually, in the objective world, the entity we have named “God” actually exists. Factually. For real.
The problem is, no matter how much we wish that was a spiritual statement, and up to our wishes and feelings, wanting it to be so doesn’t make it so. “God exists” is a secular statement, regardless of how much the truth of that statement means to us or how important it is to us for it to be true.
And as a secular statement, it can only be permitted according to the strictures of Reason alone. And like all secular statements, if if doesn’t meet the test of the Skeptic’s Principle, it must be discarded as unfounded.
So at this point you might be seeing the Covenant as little more than the final attack of Reason on spirituality. You may well be asking, if the Covenant exposes all this to the rigid demands of Reason, what’s left of spirituality in the first place? If God cannot even be said to exist, how can we even have a spirituality?
The answer is that the Covenant cuts both ways. It may cut us off from making factual claims we cannot prove, but it has another very interesting effect that I will be calling “immanence” which protects our truly spiritual beliefs from any trespass of Reason and the Skeptic’s Principle.
So read on to “The Covenant: Immanence“.
In the last article “The Covenant, Illustrated” we saw that embracing the division between the secular and the spiritual has significant consequences to our beliefs and practices. We saw that much of what is claimed by people as spiritual beliefs are really secular beliefs after all. And since all secular beliefs must defer to Reason above all, we saw how the tools of Reason, such as the Skeptic’s Principle, discard much of these beliefs as unfounded. So we asked ourselves, does the Covenant merely eliminate spirituality? Or can it indeed protect it?
The remarkable truth is that we can have both. Certainly, the Covenant does place many ideas that were mislabeled as spiritual back into their proper secular context, and in so doing eliminates vast swaths of these claims as unfounded. But as we’ve said before, the Covenant cuts both ways. And the key to understanding the other side of the Covenant is immanence.
I have referred to the dream I had of being with my dead father. And as we already noted, if I claim that I was really speaking to my actual dead father, that would be a secular claim and quite unjustified.
But if I claimed instead that I had the experience of being with my father, that is not only justifiable, but quite possibly true.
You see, I can quite easily have an experience of being with my father, without really being with him. And yet, the experience can be just as meaningful, just as moving, and just as profound to me.
The dictionary defines “immanent” as: “taking place within the mind of the subject and having no effect outside of it.”
My experience of being with my dead father was immanent. It wasn’t related to my actual father factually, and yet I still had a very deep and meaningful experience nevertheless.
This is immanence, this idea that we can have very real experiences that can profoundly touch us, even when the object of the experience may not even be actually involved, may not even exist. And it is immanence that in the Covenant guards and protects our spiritual experiences.
Now obviously had my dream been different, I may not have been able to honestly say I had a very real experience of being with my dad. If instead in my dream my dad had been purple, singing show tunes in Vulcan, and burying a bone like a dog, it would be unlikely for this to feel like any kind of real experience with my father – since I can assure you that in life he wasn’t purple, did not sing show tunes, and never behaved as a canine!
Ultimately, though, it is up to the individual whether or not the experience felt real enough, because in the end, it’s not about fact, but feeling – that’s what makes it spiritual in the first place.
The next thing about immanence is that within spiritual matters, it is essentially limitless, it’s that powerful.
We said that the claim that the earth is younger than ten thousand years old is secular, and it is. But the power and meaning of the story of a young earth is not secular, and the meaning it imbues us with is protected by immanence.
We said that the idea that I was really talking to the spirit of my dead father wasn’t justifiable, and could not be sustained, and that is correct. But the value of the experience of that conversation in my dream is protected by immanence.
We said we couldn’t even claim that the fact “God exists” is actually true. But God doesn’t have to actually exist for us to pray to him (or her), to be heard by him, and to hear his reply.
The immanent world is the world inside us, the domain precisely of our spiritual truths. We have experiences every day, not rooted in factual reality, that touch us, sadden us, fill us with anger, joy, hope. Every compelling film, book, or TV show, every story that has resonance, that goes beyond mere emotion to something more, something that connects with us in some intrinsic way demonstrates to us that the profundity we see is breathed to life within us by these stories.
Whether the story is fictional or a fable or both, it doesn’t matter. Whether we are provoked into thought (or better yet, action) by a compelling movie or a sermon in church, if we are touched it’s all the same. Each of these are rooted in our immanent experiences. Whether or not those experiences come from stories or truth is perhaps not the point. The point is how we are moved, and what these experiences mean to us.
That is immanence.
And with immanence, the Covenant is able to sustain and provide for all the spirituality we need.
This is ultimate truth of the Covenant. It explicitly divides the secular from the spiritual. It gives total dominance of all secular matters to Reason. But, through immanence, it permanently and completely insulates actually spiritual matters from challenges of Reason, such as the Skeptic’s Principle.
Ultimately, the Covenant tells us the truth that we wish we had known all along: that facts aren’t a matter of opinion, but everything else is. The Covenant tells us that no spirituality can ever tell us about the “outer” world, but at the same time, that only our spirituality can answer for us questions of the “inner” world – such as matters of right and wrong, worthiness, purpose, context, and meaning.
So long as we hold to the Covenant, whatever the form of our spirituality – Christian, Muslim, Judaism, Hinduism, Atheism, etc – we will be able to seek agreement on the facts, and to more harmoniously tolerate our spiritual differences.
In the final analysis, the Covenant is what we all must embrace, and what can potentially unite us all. The time for pretending to know what we do not know is over. We must no longer have a death-grip on secular matters that we have no factual justification for and therefore no right to embrace. Likewise, we must no longer consider our own spirituality more real than anyone else’s – the Covenant defends all truly spiritual beliefs.
A place for everything, and everything in its place – that is the Covenant. And accepting it’s truth is the first, last, and most vital thing we can do. I leave it to each of you to ask yourselves what benefit you can possibly get by rejecting it. I leave it to each of us to meet under the sacred Covenant.
We’ve been asking ourselves why the Covenant isn’t already front and center in our lives – as I am surely not the first person to have thought such things. So we ask ourselves, what is so scary about the Covenant, about keeping our secular and spiritual worlds separate? What gets lost when we embrace the Covenant?
In the last installment, we talked about one thing that gets lost: the ability to arbitrarily call oneself “special” or “chosen”, and get a big albeit unearned ego boost. Let’s proceed with the next thing we lose along the way when we embrace the Covenant.
- The safety net of believing in life after death.
This is a big one, although it is quite simple. We all know that one day we will all die. Most of us really don’t want to die, but we can’t change that. So what many do is simply choose to believe that somehow they will go on, usually with some “life after death” scenario. Because without that belief, all we have is a big scary “I don’t know” about what or if anything exists post mortal death.
This is the simplest to diagram of all of the four things lost:
- Only secular truths can speak about the factual nature of reality, according to the Covenant.
- The Skeptic’s Principle applies to all secular truths, so this means we have no right to claim any life after death exists with justification, without proof that it is necessarily true.
- That proof is obviously not present.
- Therefore, embracing the Covenant means embracing not being able to claim to know that life occurs after death.
The only way to avoid this sequence is to embrace the opposite of the Covenant: the idea that wanting something to be factually true, or believing that something is factually true, is enough to claim it really is factually true. And that’s probably one big reason why some folks run screaming from the idea of the Covenant – it strips away our ability to pretend the world is the way that we wish it was.
The same issues apply to the third thing we lose when we embrace the Covenant:
- The relief of believing that no matter the injustices of this world, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished in the next.
To put this another way, this is the belief (or desire) of a cosmic force or entity who (among other things presumably) spends time making sure to balance the scales of universal justice, one who rewards the good and punishes the wicked.
It is comforting to think this. All too often life mistreats us, and much of the time there’s not a lot we can do about it. Believing in some kind of cosmic justice is a coping mechanism to handle the sometimes blatant unfairness of life, combined with possible circumstances that do not empower us to address it.
Nevertheless, the same issues above that applied to believing in life-after-death factually applies to believing in cosmic justice factually too. Now, I’m not saying that the wicked never get punished and the good never get rewarded, because I do believe that what goes around comes around, and we do tend to get back from the world what we put into it, up to a point. But believing that our choices are their own punishment (or reward) isn’t so much a factual belief as it is a value or context – which is perfectly allowed within the Covenant. Just so long as we don’t imply some kind of supernatural corrective force out there making things better, whether that “better” be fixing things in this life or promising the good heaven and the wicked hell in the “next” life.
So why would people not want to embrace the Covenant? Because if they did, they would lose the idea that cosmic justice is factually true – because that is a secular truth, and from what we can see, it can’t be defended.
There is one more thing lost in embracing the Covenant, which we will address in the next article, What Gets Lost, Part 4. See you there.
Now, as we covered the second and third things in the last article, we look at the fourth and final thing that gets left behind and lost when we embrace the Covenant:
- The inertia of thousands of years of belief and tradition.
The Covenant is in many ways the opposite of what we humans have been doing for thousands of years. It tell us that there are two halves to life – the secular facts and our spiritual convictions, and makes it our job to make sure that each kind stays on it’s own side. All statements of fact must be handled according to secular ways, in other words, by Reason alone. However, all our spiritual convictions, so long as they do not express statements of fact, can be freely embraced.
In contrast, for the past several millenia humanity has been blurring the line between fact and belief willy-nilly. Even today few stop to recognize that facts aren’t matters of opinion and plow right ahead embracing the wildest irrational beliefs, with no regard for reality’s own truth at all. Many seem to feel that if you believe in something strongly enough, want something badly enough, you don’t have to pay attention to stuff like evidence, proof, or justification. It is this willful ignorance and immature behavior that is thrown right back in our faces when reality reminds us time after time that when it comes to truth, reality always wins, and if we turn a blind eye, we lose.
But humankind has ever been willing to embrace utter irrationality in the service of some shortsighted goal or emotional craving. Many of us, myself included, have trouble always turning away from the spoiled child within to instead deal with the world as an adult. And since this has been going on since humankind invented religion and long before, it doesn’t seem crazy to us now – it seems normal. Conventional. Traditional.
It’s a gigantic and not particularly safe universe, and we grasp for any safety and reliability we can get. How reassuring it is for us to fall into the arms of institutions that our parents belonged to, and their parents before them, and so on. Although there is a natural human tendency towards progress and building a better future, there is also an equally natural and human tendency that opposes change and seeks refuge in “authority” and convention. Our rituals and practices change a little through the years, but it’s the traditions passed from one generation to the next that give us a feeling of constancy, and reassures us.
Perhaps if the Covenant had been invented two thousand years ago and been embraced by masses of people who wrote about it, extended it, developed rituals around it, and so on, by now it would be as comfortable as all the other elder religious institutions. Unfortunately, it was not – although if we are particularly optimistic we can certainly hope that what we do now can build a future where five hundred years from now or more the Covenant becomes such a tradition.
But for now, it isn’t. It isn’t the faith of anyone’s fathers and mothers (that I know) and it doesn’t (yet) have the attention of millions of people, let alone billions. The only one writing about it (that I am aware of) is me.
So it doesn’t deliver that warm and comfy feeling that the other time-worn belief structures do. And embracing the Covenant means at the very least modernizing one’s traditional beliefs significantly, if not replacing them entirely. For someone growing up in a religious community, embracing something much newer loses a lot of heritage and cultural history that goes way back. It takes a lot of courage to step away from the “truths” one has been raised with, and bravely invent one’s own truths. One simply cannot embrace the progress of the Covenant while gripping tightly the dogma of the past.
Giving up that context, which may as invisible as the air we breath as yet may also seem just as vital, is hard. Despite being justified by what the Covenant gives us, losing thousands of years of traditions is no small thing.
So there we have it. Embracing the Covenant is hard because it takes from us four things – things perhaps that actually harm us more than they help us in the long run, but that also are part of the fabric of our lives, that we allow ourselves to depend on, sometimes without even fully knowing how much.
If we embrace the Covenant:
We can’t be the “chosen” special ones because the facts don’t support it.
We can’t be comforted by the idea that when death comes we will go on past it, because the facts don’t support that either.
We can’t be comforted by the idea that even if the world seems unjust and unfair, some force or entity will make everything all right sooner or later – because the facts don’t support it.
And finally, we can’t take comfort in enshrouding ourselves in blind tradition and convention, because much of what has dogged our heels from our primitive past is flawed, and must either be modified or replaced.
These are the four reasons why, I think, this idea has yet to catch fire. It doesn’t gives us what we wanted – unless what we want is what we need.
Now what we need is more than a single true principle. Embracing the Covenant is fine, but how do we go from a single core principle like that to something rich enough, diverse enough, and functional enough to attend to all our spiritual needs? That’s a very good question, and one that I intend to keep asking and hopefully answering as this site keeps stumbling forward.
Try these two statements on for size:
I know I will never be able to breathe underwater without scuba gear (or other help.)
I know I will never lie to my partner.
I think it’s interesting how we feel pretty sure about both, but if we stop and think about, the second one could actually happen, even though right now we “know” it couldn’t. It is not impossible to imagine some potential (if not likely) scenario where lying to my partner might be the best thing. For example, someone grabs me on the street, pulls me into an alley. My partner, seeing I’ve vanished, calls out to me. The assailant with his guns to me whispers for me to tell her I’m fine and not to come into the alley, which I do, partly because a guy with a gun is telling me to and partly because I want to make sure she doesn’t come over and become endangered too. I’ve just lied to her.
To be sure, it was utterly justified, but nevertheless, that what separates the two sentences above.
It has to do with the mind and with the heart. The minds thinks and the heart feels.
What happens when we alter the two sentences to be more precise:
I think that I will never be able to breathe underwater without scuba gear (or other help.)
I feel that I will never lie to my partner.
The fact of the word “know” is it can mean either. And that’s very bad™ when it comes to communicating accurately about whether you have good reason to make a statement, or are simply articulating what you feel.
It goes the other way too. If a something is claimed factually true – like life after death – that’s for the mind to determine – the heart has nothing to add about whether or not there is justification for such a claim. Oh, the heart can speak all about how much we want or hope it is true, or how much we feel in our bones that it is – but neither of those apply to whether or not a secular claim is justified, and so are not relevant to that determination.
Likewise, the mind can present facts, pros and cons, but the heart ultimately has to make the decision on what it wants. Do you embrace or resist smoking? The mind can present facts about the truth of the dangers of smoking and the costs, but none of that makes the decision for you – ultimately it’s about whether the pleasure of the act outweighs your dislike of its consequences – a matter of feeling and heart, as there is no objective measure that X amount of downside is worth Y amount of reward. Each person has to look for that answer within themselves, and the balance point is at least somewhat different for each of us.
So next time someone tells you they know something – or uses similar words that could mean either thinking or feeling – ask them if it’s with their heart or with their mind. Then you can determine if they’ve broken the Covenant or not – and whether to take them seriously.
We’ve talked quite a bit about the Covenant, about how ignoring it is perilous and leads us either on the one side to confusing our beliefs about reality with facts about reality – a very dangerous situation – or on the other side to turning a blind eye to or even invalidating our very real experiences and convictions as meaningless. Embracing the Covenant fixes all that. The Covenant is critical and vital, the first step without which the rest are pointless.
But it is not enough.
What the Covenant does is, if you will, set up the board and pieces properly in the game of life. It lets us start off on the right foot. However, the Covenant alone merely frames our conversations and endeavors. It provides space for our values, but does not suggest which values to embrace. It carves out a place for us to assign meaning to our experiences, but does not endorse any particular meaning. All the Covenant does by itself is inspire us to keep the factual stuff on the secular side and the contextual stuff on the spiritual side – but alone it does not even hint what sort of context we should use.
That’s what our spirit is for.
The Covenant does not tells us that these choices are healthy, good, or worthy of us, and those choices are not.
That’s what our specific chosen Spirituality is for.
To put another way, I believe it’s clear that the Covenant is a necessary fundamental part of any set of rational beliefs. But it is only a part, not the whole – without more than just the Covenant, a belief structure will be incomplete. And that’s where each of us come in.
Spiritualities come in all kinds of forms. Take a recent social development – the acceptance (or lack thereof) of humans with sexual orientations other than heterosexual – normally called LGBT for (I think) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
Some Spiritualities find this unacceptable and claim it as a moral duty to oppose LGBT in all forms. Others preach tolerance or even embracement. Both sides could claim to be utterly Covenant compatible if both sides were committed to not mixing up their facts and their feelings.
And while it is true that from my perspective I see more contra-Covenant actions on the anti-LGBT side, there’s nothing about the Covenant by itself that is pro-LGBT. So long as the difference between fact and feeling is respected and observed, one could be utterly in accordance with the Covenant while still preaching that LGBT is “morally wrong” or “a sin”. (Although, the idea that it is a fact that sinning can get you sent to hell for real is utterly not compatible with the Covenant, since that claim is not justifiable by reason alone – i.e., it is not scientifically supportable. But so long as a “sin” is a spiritual concept and not considered factual, one doesn’t run afoul of the Covenant.)
Now, I myself am utterly pro LGBT. Just because I’m attracted to the opposite gender shouldn’t put any obligation on anyone else to be like me, is what I believe. Even further, I will admit to being repelled by the sight of seeing two guys lovingly kissing – to me it’s icky – but it’s not wrong and my discomfort should have zero impact on the choices of the LGBT unless I am willing to live my life under the same rules, unless I am willing to limit my actions to those that make no one elseuncomfortable. And my hope is that the more widespread LGBT acceptance is, the fewer people will grow up with the visceral reactions I have, and it won’t even be an issue.
These are my values. Not because the Covenant tells me to have them, but because my heart and spirit do. All the Covenant can do is frame the question of what we value, what we believe in, and what values we want to strive against, but it cannot answer those questions. We have to.
So please do not think that in promoting the Covenant I think that (were everyone to embrace it) peace and harmony would follow and people would no longer disagree. I simply think that what the Covenant helps us do is to have conversations about our differing values honestly and productively.
I hold the Covenant sacred, and I am pro-LGBT. Someone else may also hold the Covenant equally sacred, but be anti-LGBT. But at least the two of us would be able to speak the same language as we each tried to pursue our values. At least we would both would have to admit that neither value is more “real” or “valid” than the other impartially. We would be able to admit that the fundamental question and task of convincing ourselves, each other, and everyone else that our values are “good” or “healthy” or any other spiritual (but not secular) truth is our burden or calling if we choose.
Those who contravene the Covenant do create fundamentally irrational, broken belief systems. But embracing the Covenant is not enough, you still have to commit yourself to pursuing and embracing the good – and you need to find a spiritual path to figuring out what that “good” is, because for that, the Covenant alone is not enough.